The post-coronial future of Higher Education: Utopian hopes and dystopian fears at Cambridge University

Simone Eringfeld

You’re asking about my perfect post-Covid dystopian University? Imagine everyone’s got really nice VR headsets and virtual reality has exponentially gotten better and better. We can now host the entire experience online, so you wake up in the morning, you put your headset on and then you ‘go to’ university, you go to lectures … You sort of simulate what life is. I think that’s the worst-case scenario. I think if it was like how it is now but online – because you could just do it cheaply online – the University of Cambridge would be like a network, or a file. It wouldn’t even be a place anymore. That seems hellish to me. I think that’s my perfect dystopia.

- Peter, Cambridge undergraduate student

If I asked you to describe your ‘perfect dystopia’ of a post-pandemic university, what kind of scenario would emerge? And which images arise when you try to picture the opposite, an ideal utopian outcome? When I interviewed students and academics at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education about hopes and fears for the future of HE, responses included scenes that could inspire even the gloomiest science fiction scripts. It is clear that Covid-19 has raised critical questions addressing the existential core of HE institutions and their futures. By imagining best and worst-case scenarios, this time of crisis becomes an opportunity to pause and reflect: what kind of university do we ultimately want, and what is it we absolutely don’t want?

This research project focuses on the following thought experiment: how can we reimagine the post-coronial university? I introduce the term ‘post-coronial’ here as:

“… a temporally evocative notion indicating both the university after Covid-19 and its evolvement as a consequence of Covid-19 in the here and now, during the pandemic. In addition, the term speculatively indicates the emergence of a new school of thought that might result from the impact of Covid-19 on societies and educational systems; that is, the possibility of future ‘post-coronial theory’ or ‘post-coronial education’ in a more conceptual and less time-bound sense”

Prior to conducting private interviews with students and faculty members, I started the podcast Cambridge Quaranchats’, where I invited members of the Cambridge community – from undergraduates to senior professors – to share their own experiences of education in the time of Covid-19 and to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the University. This podcast became an important component of my research methodology, with interviewees listening in advance to selected fragments of podcast conversations in order to sonically elicit their own imagination. I wrote about my podcasting methodology in another blog post here. 

The most prominent fear that emerged from the research interviews is that of a complete and indefinite shift to online education. Such a dystopian university would become a ‘placeless’ institution, with the university now being ‘located’ inside desktop files and Zoom rooms. Such a university would be a disembodied institution, where screens and virtual reality replace the ‘real world’. Participants described a dystopia in which education would no longer be a social experience, where communal learning would be lost and where loneliness and isolation would exponentially be on the rise. A third theme that resurfaced across dystopian accounts given by students and faculty members is the fear that education would become ‘dehumanized’, with increased marketization and bureaucratization leading to a drastic reduction of precisely that which gives meaning to educational practices for many: interpersonal, human contact.

Yet when asked about their utopian visions for the future, not a single participant suggested a full return to pre-pandemic HE. Instead, many described a utopian post-coronial university with at least some elements of online education as part of the new normal. As one academic reflects:

I do want to go back to some of the college dinners and conversations, the late-night sessions and seminars, the music … But I would also want some of my supervisions to be able to happen online and I would want to be able to integrate what I’ve benefited from through this period of lockdown and isolation to become part of my ‘new normal’, because I can see there are huge benefits for me and I think for the students as well.

Advantages of online education that participants reported include a sense of enhanced freedom and agency, less performance pressure, more quality time with family, improved ability to focus on studying due to reduced FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) and more space for creativity and artistic expression. Others noted the potential for online education to expand access to a larger audience by reducing the costs of HE, offering more open access resources, designing more MOOCs and including other multi-media formats of education such as video recordings, audio podcasts and improved virtual learning environments. Such flexibility would allow university experiences to be tailored to the varying needs of students and staff. One graduate student pointed out that the availability of distance learning options would enable students based in different countries, or in different life phases, to still attend Cambridge.

At the same time, developing blended learning approaches that combine in-person with virtual education will bring about new challenges. One academic points to dystopian dangers connected to large-scale massification, the loss of personalized interaction and strengthened ‘echo chambers’ when students remain at home. Another student shared his fear that extreme commodification of education could turn even the most casual everyday aspects of student life into ‘sellable bite-sized experiences’, like student society meetings or visits to the college buttery. Many of these hopes and fears do not exclusively exist in the imagination; instead, they build on pre-existing issues in HE such as marketization, individualisation and exclusivity. While some of the dystopian scenarios may seem far removed from reality, they connect to HE tendencies already visible today.

What emerges from these interviews is in no way a singularly defined vision for the future, but rather a widely shared view that neither a fully online university nor a complete return to pre-pandemic HE is desirable. For “while a fully online format is seen as dystopian due to the loss of education as an embodied and communal experience connected to the ‘real world’, moving some teaching activities online may increase flexibility and improve access to HE for an expanded community in ways that a purely face-to-face university would not be able to”. Universities will need to embrace flexibility and adaptability by fostering a blended approach to education that safely involves both online and face-to-face education. Importantly, this blended post-coronial university will need to think creatively about new ways to construct and maintain a sense of belonging for both students and staff, so as to ensure that HE remains a communal, humanized and embodied experience. 

This blog is based on my article for Studies in Higher Education

Photo by Tonik on Unsplash

Simone Eringfeld is a recent Education MPhil graduate from the University of Cambridge. She is the co-Chair of the Cambridge Peace and Education Research Group (CPERG) and hosts the podcast Cambridge Quaranchats, which explores possible futures of post-Covid HE. She tweets. @SimoneEringfeld

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